Jaak Treiman: The consulates in the US are crucial for Estonia’s security

Jaak Treiman, Estonia’s honorary consul in Los Angeles, writes that the Estonian foreign ministry’s decision to close the New York City and San Francisco consulates is not in Estonia’s best interests – as both consulates provide indispensable value and are a crucial enhancement of Estonia’s physical and economic security.

This article was originally published in Estonian in the Estonian weekly, Eesti Ekspress.

The Estonian foreign ministry’s decision to close the New York City and San Francisco consulates has generated explanations and commentary. I want to add my commentary to the mix, offering what is perhaps a different perspective.

My connection to Estonia’s foreign ministry predates the reacquisition of independence. In 1986, Ernst Jaakson (an Estonian diplomat whose contribution was to maintain Estonia’s legal continuity with his uninterrupted diplomatic service for 69 years) appointed me Estonia’s honorary consul in Los Angeles, a position I continue to hold. I attended a number of pre-independence and immediate post-independence meetings at the New York consulate. I have an emotional attachment to the place. Nevertheless, I believe my opinion that the New York and San Francisco consulates should remain open is based on my perception of Estonia’s self-interest rather than my emotion.

Broadly stated, Estonia’s foreign ministry has two functions. One is to service Estonian citizens who are abroad, either temporarily or permanently. The second function is to implement Estonia’s foreign policy.

The functions related to servicing Estonian citizens remain fairly constant, even as new technologies are implemented that potentially eliminate or decrease the need for consular personnel to render some personal services.

Inside the Estonian consulate general in San Francisco, located at 101 Natoma Street, in the SoMa neighbourhood of the city. Photo from the consulate's Facebook page.
Inside the Estonian consulate general in San Francisco, located at 101 Natoma Street, in the SoMa neighbourhood of the city. Photo from the consulate’s Facebook page.

The second function, implementing the government’s foreign policy objectives, varies depending on what coalition is in power. However, over the years there has been unanimity that Estonia’s foreign policy aims to enhance security through membership in the European Union, strong ties with NATO and maintaining a close relationship with the United States. In addition, Estonia’s foreign policy has an economic factor that has, over the years, borne different labels. The current description is “business diplomacy”, in other words, helping open overseas markets for Estonian firms and seeking an inflow of capital from overseas to Estonia.

How does the closing of the Estonian consulates in San Francisco and New York impact the foreign ministry’s two principal functions?

Estonia would have just one career diplomatic office in the US

First, it should be noted that Europe covers approximately 10,000,000 square kilometres; America has a land area of approximately 9,800,000 square kilometres. Estonia has career diplomatic representation in 24 European countries. In the United States, covering roughly the same approximate geographic area, it has three career diplomatic offices and proposes to decrease the number to one while adding two people to the remaining outpost.

New York and San Francisco each have two career diplomats to carry out the foreign ministry’s functions. New York also has a part time person to bring Estonian culture to America. Because of the magnitude of the job, her work is limited mostly to the East Coast.

The Estonian consulate general in New York City is located in this building at 305 E 47th Street.
The Estonian consulate general in New York City is located in this building at 305 E 47th Street.

The consulates service Estonian citizens by taking fingerprints for passport and ID card applications and renewals, receiving and processing applications for those who are not able to renew online, dealing with law enforcement when Estonian citizens are involved, handling issues related to lost passports, helping Estonian citizens who have been robbed, addressing issues related to immigration holds placed on Estonian citizens, providing guidance to destitute Estonians, issuing visas and a myriad other items of which I am probably not aware.

The San Francisco consulate works with and supervises Estonian honorary consuls in Seattle, Los Angeles, San Diego and Phoenix. Each of those cities has an active Estonian community with whom the career consuls need to interact. Each of those cities also has a business, social, political and cultural environment with which the career consul is supposed to be familiar. Similarly, the New York consulate is responsible for supervising honorary consuls stretching from Massachusetts and North Carolina to Florida and from Atlanta through Texas to Ohio and Illinois and has the same obligations to interact with local communities within its jurisdiction.

Essential for Estonia to maintain a high visibility among the American people

Throughout the years of Soviet occupation, the United States steadfastly followed a policy of not recognising the legality of the Soviet annexations of the Baltic States. The reason that policy was followed was not so much that international law required it. It was followed because the Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian refugees who settled in the United States made good impressions even as they maintained a constant stream of activities, both within their local communities and in Washington, exerting pressure to have that policy continue.

Diplomat Ernst Jaakson (1905-1998) at his desk in the Estonian consulate general in New York City. Photo by the Estonian foreign ministry.

Now that Estonia has reincarnated, it is essential that the official, career representatives of Estonia maintain a high visibility among the American people – business, cultural and political. Local Estonians can do a certain amount of this, as can honorary consuls. But, in my experience, nothing is as effective as a career Estonian government official mixing with and making friends with a broad circle of Americans.

That kind of personal contact is crucial for Estonia’s security. A division of well-armed Estonian soldiers may hold off an invader for a limited amount of time as they wait for allied support. That support will only come if local American communities provide the impetus to the American government to act, either directly or through NATO.

It has been suggested that because the United States is the only country where Estonia has career consulates, the New York and San Francisco offices should be closed instead of securing needed financial credit by closing an embassy. If that is in fact the only choice, I submit that an embassy may not always benefit Estonia more than a consulate. It is in Estonia’s interest to maintain the New York and San Francisco consulates rather than an embassy that services few Estonians and provides little economic value. 

The New York and San Francisco consulates provide indispensable value. They not only service Estonian citizens but are a crucial enhancement of Estonia’s physical and economic security. Both should remain open.

Read more:

While closing consulates in the US, Estonia pays $30k a month for an ambassador’s residence
Estonia to close consulates in New York City and San Francisco
Sten Hankewitz: By closing the NYC consulate, Estonia is eliminating its own history
Estonians in the US shocked over consulate closure
Renee Meriste: Estonia should open rather than close consulates in the US
Estonians in the US appeal against the NY consulate closure
Estonians in the West Coast protest against the SF consulate closure

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